Handles by Don Plummer
I usually make many of the handles for my blacksmithing tools. Although I have tried many woods I believe only hickory or white ash suitable. And as far as hickory is concerned, I prefer it to the ash for hammer things and I think the Shagbark hickory is the better variety.
I like the white ash best for the long handled tools. Any other woods such as oak, maple, dogwood, locust, etc. will eventually cause problems. They are either too stiff and there is no spring, the head will eventually collapse under the pressures of pounding, grain will constantly curl up, it will break suddenly or it splits easily.
I like to get the wood from about an 8-10" tree. In this instance the younger, more rapid growing tree is best. I have gone up to 16" and the handles still seem to be okay but it gets more difficult to work with a larger tree. I cut the tree into two size boles (segments): One for hammer type stuff at about 20" and the other for handled tools like shovels, rakes, etc. at about 6'. Then, I split these up with a froe and club or wedges into handle sized splits. About 3" square for the 6' boles and 2" square for the hammer type tools (includes, flatters, cut-offs, fullers, etc.) Do not use any of the pith. Use that to throw on your outdoor grill to add some excellent flavor. One tree will give you dozens of each size. Throw these pieces in a dark dry place to dry for the next year or ten.
When I need a new handle I shape it on a shaving horse but you could use a good solid bench vise also. Something about waist height. Not nearly as much traditional fun, however. I also do a little shaping for the head with a big wood rasp. Somehow that seems a little like cheating but it is rapid and accurate. I also have a 1x42 belt sander that I sometime use for getting the head to shape quickly. That is definitely cheating. I always finish the handle with a spokeshave. I agree, as someone just mentioned, never sandpaper. The spokeshave leave nice little longitudinal ridges that help the grip. To finish I rub in a bit of linseed oil with my hands.
Occasionally, and for no really good reason, I stain it first. Just to get a little darker color. Hickory is almost bone white when dried. Takes me about an hour to do a handle from raw stock. When I mount the head I put a wood wedge in lengthwise (running with the hammer) and a soft steel wedge cross-wise. To put in the wood wedge I saw down to a depth just short of the bottom of the hammer. I have been making the wood wedges out of locust but I suspect something else might be a bit better. But we are really talking nits here.
It is a lot of work getting the tree, cutting it up and splitting but once done it is likely you will have enough handle material for the rest of your life. Other than firewood, hickory is not much used. (Except, of course, for handles). I get most of my hickory from developers clearing for housing. I always offer them 10-20 bucks if I can have the tree and (so far) they have always said "Just take it". One time one developer asked me to make a handle for a fiberglass handled hammer of his that just broke. I have plenty of hickory handled tools that are still going strong after 25 years. It appears they will easily outlast my arm.
A wonderful handle for a medium to large file is a golf ball. Take an old golf ball, drill a 1/4" hole more than half way through the ball. This hole size will vary for smaller or larger files. Ram the tang of the file into the hole, and you've got a new handle. It's also great for hanging up the file in a rack.